Friday, July 30, 2010

After Shave

You might remember how, several months ago, I reviewed a Free Comic Book Day offering by my friends at Unshaven Comics. That issue was a "Sneak Preview" of their comic "Disposable Razors," and they released the full first issue at C2E2 a few months back. I got my copy shortly thereafter, and free time shortly thereafter that, so it's well past time that I got down to reviewing the book.

The book consists of two stories, "The White," which continues into the next two issues, and "Chasing Daylight," which had a prologue in the Sneak Preview. "The White" is basically a new draft of the Sneak Preview's material, with some updates and alterations here and there, while "Chasing Daylight" is all new. In any case, I'll be doing a lot of comparison, so if you haven't read the original review, you might give it another look.

The first point of comparison is the cover. My years of dedicated practice in a remote ashram under my learned sensei Slylock Fox have given me the skills necessary to accomplish this task:
That was fun. Now I wonder what Goofus and Gallant are up to.

"Disposable Razors" gets a snazzy and fitting new logo for this first issue, which is a lot more distinctive and appropriate than the cartoonish text on the Sneak Preview. The basics of the cover are the same, with a guy shaving in a bathroom mirror. The "Awesome Area for Creator Signatures" has been replaced with a vanity (with an Unshaven logo on it), and some details have been added in the mirror image. The coloring is much more nuanced, making the skin coloring a little more natural (and for some reason changing the variety of Barbasol--I guess the guy doesn't need the "Soothing Aloe" anymore). While the updated coloring is generally better, there are a couple of disappointing changes: first, an unnecessary and slightly distracting lens flare effect has been Photoshopped in, and while the shaved spot on the guy's face before had revealed a subtle star field, now it's just a fade-to-black gradient. The effect looks like a more advanced bit of coloring, but loses the interesting and fantastic implications of the original art.

On a more nitpicky note, I just noticed that on both covers, the actual guy has a sideburn, while his reflection doesn't. Spoooooky.

Moving into the book, it starts with what ought to be a correction on my end. "The White," from the Sneak Preview, becomes a framing story here. Unfortunately for me, I originally thought the first page was an excerpt from "The March," Unshaven's original graphic novel. So if you're going back to that original review, my discussion of "The March" is mostly a discussion of the first page of "The White."

"The White" has been completely relettered and split into two pieces to bookend the main story. The relettering addresses some of my early criticisms, particularly the unnecessary out-of-place censorship, and the font looks a bit more expensive (and less Simpsonsesque) to boot. It looks like it's been recolored a bit too, but that might just be a quirk of printing and paper quality. The dialogue has been revised, pretty heavily in places, which is good, because it removes a bit of attempted scientific detail that I'm surprised didn't bother me before. There's less text, which provides a better flow, and lessens the infodump sensation that this story had previously.

So, for the capsulized recap: a man is caught in a thunderstorm, which leads to his transportation to The White, a dimension that acts as a nexus looking into alternate realities, similar to "The Bleed" in DC/Wildstorm. Speaking of DC, our designated protagonist is guided and berated through the dimension by a lampshaded Skeets-lookalike who (now) calls himself "VOX." The protagonist looks into the insanity-inducing surreality of The White, but his experience with sci-fi and comic books have immunized him against madness. The story--such as it is--kind of meanders until the protagonist looks into a reality-window at a character that looks kind of like him, starting the first vignette. At the other end of the book, the protagonist reacts to the events he's seen in the reality-window, and VOX changes his appearance.

While the art is basically the same, a new two-page spread has been added, which is a nice riff on the kind of surreal spacescapes you might find in Kirby's Fourth World or Ditko's Dr. Strange books. It's colorful, it's bizarre, and it looks like it ought to be a psychedelic rock album cover. It's also basically the best art in the story.

I hate to say this, but I'm fairly disappointed by "The White." The art needed precisely the same facelift that the lettering and dialogue got, but didn't receive it. Frankly, I kind of hope it wasn't completely recolored, because the pre-White page really could use it. The landscape/background looks fine, but the protagonist is washed out and pale, to the point where there's not enough contrast between his skin and his teeth and the whites of his eyes to tell if they're colored differently. That's exacerbated by the high contrast between all the light washed-out color and the heavy inks in his face.

There's a lot of inconsistency in how the character looks throughout the story. His hairstyle and length, as well as the length of his facial hair, changes wildly from page to page and, sometimes, from panel to panel. There are ways to handwave this away, since it's established about halfway through that he can change his appearance within The White, but it really just looks like sloppy continuity editing.

Similarly, somehow the header from the blue line art board got left on the third page; it could be handwaved as well (that's the first page where we really see the bizarre surreality of The White) but it really just looks like "Book: The White Issue: 1 Page: 3" didn't get cropped out of the scan before it went to the printers. It wasn't worth critiquing in the Sneak Preview, given that book's status as a Free Comic Book Day sampler, but that's kind of a glaring error to leave in the final draft--especially without any explanation.

I'm going to go off on one of my traditional pseudointellectual tangents for a moment, if you'll indulge me. "Unshaven Comics" is an anthology series. I've got a lot of experience with anthology series in comics, television, and especially movies, and they tend to break down into two groups. There are anthologies where the framing device exists purely to link together the main stories, and there are anthologies where the framing sequence is a story on its own.

To elaborate slightly, we never really knew anything about Rod Serling's characters in "The Twilight Zone" or "Night Gallery." He was just there to link together the tales of interest. The Cryptkeeper didn't have plots, just puns. Most anthology TV series and comic books fall into that first category.

On the other hand, go watch "Creepshow" or "Trick 'r Treat," and you'll see the second motif. The framing device is a short story like the rest of the vignettes, with its own plot and characters. Sometimes it's separate from the vignettes, other times it weaves into and out of them with common characters or settings or whatever. You see this kind of thing a lot in movies, where the stories might come out of characters sitting around a campfire or listening to an eccentric storyteller, or whatever.

"The White" is clearly trying to be the latter. The big problem this presents is that the story continues on into the upcoming issues, so we only get the beginning here. What results is a story that kind of meanders and treads water for much of this first installment. I criticized "The White" previously for feeling like a rough draft, and it still feels that way here. The additional splash page and updated dialogue doesn't save the series of panels that feel like they were written without a real plan.

And I hate to come down on it again, but the biggest example of how unplanned this all feels is that VOX changes his appearance for no apparent reason toward the end of the story. When a character has existed for half a dozen pages, radically changing its appearance makes it feel like the creative team decided halfway through that they didn't like how the character looked but didn't want to go back and redraw and rewrite the previous pages. I know independent comics are an expensive and time-consuming affair, but in anything like this, one needs to be willing and able to go back and radically edit, even if it means scrapping existing art and eating a bit of cost. Although I suspect that all it would take is changing some dialogue and doing a bit of Photoshop magic.

It's certainly possible that the skin change is foreshadowing or establishing something (although I'd think that the protagonist's earlier discovery that he could manipulate his own appearance did the latter), and I'll be able to evaluate this better when the story is complete. However, when you're telling stories in a serial medium, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that it looks like there's a plan, and this is one element out of several that makes "The White" look quite unplanned. I suppose "not introducing a conflict in the first act" is another major one.

I'm happy to say that "Chasing Daylight" is considerably better. The original "Chasing Daylight" short in the Sneak Preview had a wildly different art style compared to "The White," owing at least in part to artist Marc Fishman. The art wasn't perfect (in fact, it's fairly flat in the last panel, though some good coloring obscures that), but it was clean and smooth. Matt Wright, the artist of "The White" and the full "Chasing Daylight" story, has a much sketchier style more reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz. That in itself isn't a criticism--I like Bill Sienkiewicz--but it's interesting to see an independent comic company with three creators go through a major change in creative teams before the first issue of the book.

Anyway, it's clear that there's been a lot of time between "The White" and "Chasing Daylight," because Wright's art has improved by leaps and bounds. Characters are distinct and consistent (and I'm have a feeling I know who modeled for the some of our protagonists) and expressive, and it's easy to follow the action. There are some hinky bits where a character's face gets distorted when they're drawn from a weird perspective, but they're fairly minor. One thing I'd kind of like to see is someone else inking over Wright's pencils; having another set of eyes and hands at work can sometimes smooth out those rough areas, and I'd like to see if that sketchiness could be restrained a little more by a different inker's pen. That's mostly personal preference, though, rather than an actual complaint about the art. If the whole book looked this good, I wouldn't have spent nearly as much time commenting on the style.

So, the capsulized story: four friends are returning from their "annual bro-cation," having a standard dude conversation about whether sex with your own clone would be gay sex or masturbation. It comes off fairly naturally, establishing the voices and personalities of the main characters (though "fellatio" is misspelled), and allowing the driver to give the backstory in captioned narration. The art is mostly fine in these pages, aside from the interior of the SUV they're all riding in occasionally looking massive (it's possible that they're driving the Canyonero--"twelve yards long and two lanes wide"). When they pull over to let one of the guys take a whiz, though, they encounter a person possessed by a predatory creature that wants to consume them as well. Being a sporting creature, it tells them that it'll spare their lives if they stay in the light. They deduce that this means they should try to follow the sun and stay in the sunlight. What follows is a pretty suspenseful horror standard, with the characters racing against time and trying to keep their wits despite conflicting personalities and the pressure of impending doom. I won't spoil it, but I think it works out fairly well, keeping close to the horror short story roots you might expect from an anthology comic, and making the conflict a believable extension of the characters' previously-established personalities.

At the end, we return to "The White" and get a quick note of how the protagonist of the framing story is connected to the characters in "Chasing Daylight." The book closes with a (now full-color) preview of "Ironside: Living Will," the story I unreservedly recommended the last time around, which will be in the second issue.

Overall, "Disposable Razors" is still a mixed bag. The main story is a pretty good, pretty conventional horror short. "The White" is fairly flawed, but I feel optimistic that a new issue with new material will improve on it. I've definitely read worse indie comics, but I've read better as well. I enjoyed the main story, but I can't honestly recommend the full issue without some reservations.

I guess, if I had one major suggestion for the Unshaven crew, it'd be to engage in a little more cutthroat editing (incidentally, I'd give the same suggestion to DC Comics lately too). One major mistake that a lot of writers make (and I imagine artists do too) is to become too enamored with an idea or a plot point or a turn of phrase, that they make sure to include that moment, even at the expense of the rest of the story. On the flipside, there's also the tendency to have errors or elements that could be better, but would take an even greater investment of time, money, and effort, and so they settle for what they've already done. There's a balance to strike between the two, where you're not wasting time and effort on being a perfectionist and you're not getting too wrapped up in your own perfection.

That's a general critique/patented tangent, there. I don't think anyone at Unshaven Comics thinks they're perfect.

The job of a comic editor is (or should be) to be a kind of professional jerk. Editors have to tell writers to cut off those abundantly clever bits of dialogue, no matter how good they are. Editors have to tell artists to redraw that page, that panel, that facial expression, even if it's the tenth time. The point of an editor is to have someone standing outside the project looking at the bigger picture, someone who's not emotionally invested in any particular aspect of the art or writing, but is invested in what the full package will look like. Also, to proofread, which is only a very minor problem for this book (and frankly, I see about the same kinds of typos in comics from the Big Two, because apparently no one hires a copy editor anymore).

I also realize the irony in my advocation of editing when I almost never do any editing whatsoever on this blog, resulting in things like 2,500-word reviews of a single comic issue.

"Disposable Razors" #2 is scheduled to debut at the Mid-Ohio Con in November. "Ironside: Living Will" was a pretty darn good story when it was black & white in the Sneak Preview, and even if there isn't any updating or improving on the art and dialogue, I think it'll be worth the price of admission. If you happen to be there, or if you frequent Stand-Up Comics--fine merchants of Unshaven Comics publications--check out Issue #1 as well, and decide for yourself.

1 comment:

Fish said...

Thanks for the review Tom. You made many a good point, and we at Unshaven enjoy the frank honesty. Your review of the sneak preview DID help us make some changes to the first issue, and no doubt some of this review will make it's way into the next book.

We're going to look into getting an editor. :)